Op-Ed: The Dangers of Community

Alden Glass, Senior

When asked to picture a Whitman student, what comes to mind? Birkenstocks and a Patagonia jacket? A frisbee in one hand and a Hydroflask in the other? Hailing from Seattle or the Bay, they have a “Resist” bumper sticker on the back of their Subaru Outback and flirt with veganism, as long as it isn’t too close to Thanksgiving.

While these stereotypes are not entirely without foundation, they represent a significant challenge to the educational mission of Whitman College. In 2015, Mary Spellman, the Dean of Students at Claremont Mckenna College emailed student activists to assure them that the school was working to help students “who don’t fit our CMC mold.” After a number of hunger strikes and widespread protest on campus, Spellman resigned.

While the President and other senior administrators at Whitman have not explicitly mentioned a Whitman mold, the emphasis on community building in President Murray’s emails to campus is doing similar work. In an email sent to the student body after the 2016 election, President Murray laid out the shared beliefs that “define” the Whitman community. She lists “inclusion, respect for difference, care for one another, willingness to engage in challenging conversations and a shared commitment to making Whitman a safe environment.” These very ideals are contradicted by the school’s unwillingness to recognize and combat discriminatory behavior towards people who don’t fit Whitman majority’s political affiliation. Every community is built through twin processes of inclusion and exclusion, and as things stand, the Administration’s community building project includes Whitman students that are politically progressive and exclude conservatives.

Imagine that you are a student not at Whitman, but a conservative, religious school in deep South. You raise your hand in class and express your deeply held conviction that social welfare is an important and necessary function of the Federal Government. Now imagine that, rather than being met with a well reasoned response, you begin to hear sniggers and see people rolling their eyes around the classroom. Outside of class, people begin to treat you as if you were unintelligent and give you nicknames like “commy” and “leftist cuck.”

While this hypothetical may sound far-fetched, this is happening on Whitman’s campus directed at people who hold politically conservative views. Whitties that are pro-life, anti-immigration and pro-capitalist are often nervous about sharing their perspective in class. In the Campus Climate report from 2016, over 200 people reported experiencing instances of intimidation, exclusion or discrimination due to their gender, race, socioeconomic status or political ideology. There were 30 people who reported feeling excluded due to their political beliefs. This number was equivalent to the number who responded with feelings of racial exclusion and two more than those who felt they were ostracized due to their income status. While the school has, at least nominally, taken strides to combat race and gender discrimination, as evidenced by new educational programming for first year students during orientation, there has been minimal discussion of or responses to combat the scenario described above.

Unfortunately, rather than attempting to address this discrimination, President Murray has continued to empower and tolerate it. In the same email cited above, President Murray describes President Trump’s election as causing “feelings of uncertainty and concern for our nation, regardless of political belief.” Judging from the Trump voters on my Facebook, there was little uncertainty or concern, and they were primarily jubilant, as I expect many on Whitman’s campus would have been had Hillary been elected. A pizza party was set up in the GAC by the administration so students could gather and discuss their feelings and share their concerns. While Hillary voters may have needed support after the election, that support should not be the concern of Whitman’s administrators, except perhaps at the Counseling Center.

By treating Trump’s election like a tragedy, President Murray let us know very clearly which political beliefs will be supported and nurtured by the school. If Whitman truly wants to build a campus community that values difficult discussions and a diversity of perspectives, two important goals for a liberal arts education, there should be a more proactive response to the instances of political exclusion noted in the Campus Climate report.

There are certainly some people on this campus who would argue that Trump voters are racist, sexist and a number of other -ists, excluding people from our community with whom we disagree significantly harms the purpose of a Whitman education. We have decided that it is important to incorporate texts from outside the European literary tradition because they provide alternative perspectives and challenge narratives dominated by the canon of dead white men. We should encourage diversity of political thought in order to enrich our classroom discussions as well. Despite what some Whitties may believe, a Trump voter and a Klansmen are not necessarily interchangeable labels.

While I hope that President Murray does not have a master plan in the basement of Mem for a Whitman College filled with Patagonia repping clones, I hope she can see how her emails have made some members of the Whitman community feel like outcasts. Let’s begin the challenging conversations and soul searching required to truly make this campus more diverse and cohesive.